Stuttering Story

Nonfiction Accounts On Growing Up With a Speech Impediment

Importance of Finding My Voice — October 29, 2015

Importance of Finding My Voice

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Expressive personality with no voice was the IDEA behind this silly picture. 2009.
Every day seems to matter more than the day before it. What I mean by this is that you can’t change the past. You bring the past with you wherever you go, but it’s part of the present now. Your past only matters because it’s forming who you are today.

People pretend all the time like their past doesn’t affect their present. They repress and ignore things that happened in early childhood, a few years ago, or even last week. Yet it comes back to visit. It lives underneath your skin. It breathes even when you pretend that it isn’t breathing.

Last week, I posted that article, “When a Poke Feels Like a Punch.” I wrote that by telling an amusing story that didn’t hurt me very much. In the last week, however, I’ve had a couple moments where others’ pokes have felt like a big giant punch in the gut. One I responded to carefully. One I did not. I panicked and the anger overtook me so much that I swung my arms like a child waking up from a bad dream. I’ll reflect on the real “bruise” of one of these moments.

Growing up, my mom was extremely affirming about my voice. She allowed to “make valid arguments” (ones my Grandmother said was just me talking back) in order to make my point. My mom let me be heard at home. However… most people did not. Another family member (trying to not name names, since who knows who will read this) took care of my brother and me all the time. She enforced a very strict policy about how much I was allowed to talk. I was a chatty cathy with a fumbling, stuttering voice. Frequently, I was encouraged to not speak until I could “slow down” and “control my voice” which really meant I had to be fluent. I was taught by her that my voice was not allowed unless I could “control” it. But I couldn’t. I could slow down, I could try my techniques, but fluency didn’t happen.

It wasn’t just this family member. It was also at school. What I’m about to say can be interpreted different ways, and I do not have a suggestion for a better way this can be done. I understand its necessity. I also need to point out that it hurt my development as a speaker. I was frequently encouraged to not have to speak in front of the class. I was constantly given the “out” so often that I started to believe people did not want to hear my stuttering voice. I understand, as an adult, what was going on. But being the isolated child at school who was told every single presentation that I did not have to do it if I was uncomfortable was strange and confusing. What’s tough here is that I do believe children who stutter should be allowed to opt out if they get so much anxiety that they cannot do it. I also believe that they should be greatly encouraged to do it, “stutter and all”. I am not an SLP and have not studied it, so I’m not an expert. Who knows.

Either way, my voice being challenged makes me feel incredibly insecure. My voice being silenced has felt like a theme in my life: I desired for awhile to become a pastor, but “knew” that women “weren’t allowed” to be pastors. I used to stand on the “stage” at church where my pastor stood and pretend that it was me giving a sermon. But my theology at the time was influenced by the idea that women had to be silent. Why would God make my innate self so LOUD if I was a stuttering woman in church? On top of all that, I was also a victim of a sexual assault by someone I was close to, and frequently felt silenced when I wanted to share what had happened. It’s also the way people frequently make teenagers feel. There are few things as dehumanizing as having your voice taken away from you.

This is true for most disabilities in the US. It isn’t just true for stuttering. People often speak “for” or “on behalf” of another, and sometimes this is necessary, but is it always? How do we decide when to speak if for our whole lives, we have thought it would be better to be silent?

Recently, I was at dinner with my friends and the topic of my stutter came up. One of them complimented my blog and everyone tuned in. It’s incredible because I was unable to have these conversations a year ago. Another girl asked me if I had kids – would they have a higher chance of stuttering? Yes, they would. I mentioned I have a friend whose son stutters, and I know of other parent/child stutterers. She replied, “Wow, that sucks.”

I understand what happened here. It is a struggle to stutter. It’s exhausting and frustrating, and it has clearly affected my self-esteem is terrible ways growing up. However, my reaction to this comment was amusement. “Not really. I mean how great is it to have that connection? You have a parent who ‘gets it’ and can pave the pathway for the kid… providing that the parent has made peace with it.”

I’m still amazed at how far one can come in just a year.

It’s up to those of us who stutter to change the path we are on. It’s up to us to determine that our voices matter – not in spite of our stutter… and not even because of our stutter. I think people will listen. I think most people want to hear our voices. But no matter what the truth of that statement is: Our voices matter — stutter and all.

Why a Poke Feels Like a Punch: Even Friends Can Say The Wrong Thing — October 22, 2015

Why a Poke Feels Like a Punch: Even Friends Can Say The Wrong Thing

30131_440647912344_3528711_nDespite knowing someone had better intentions, words can hurt. In the stuttering community, we talk a lot about how people make the comments they make about our speech disfluency typically because they “don’t know” what is going on. They don’t “mean” any harm. While this is true and important to identify, I’ll explain why it’s OK that this hurts and why even the lightest behavior can be harmful to you.

First, a story.

A couple years ago, I was getting brunch with a great friend of mine, who I’ll call Scott. Scott is a good guy, and would never intend to harm me. I know that and I understand that. This was also at a stage in my life where I was not comfortable talking too much about my stutter. I was newly aware of acceptance, and the battle was only about to begin.

He was telling me how his older brother has a great memory, but is a terrible storyteller. But how he, Scott, was an excellent storyteller but had a horrible memory. I laughed and said, “Well good thing I have both those things!”

He laughed back and added, “Now if we could just get rid of that stutter!”

Ouch. Thanks, Scott.

It hurt, but I tried to laugh it off. After all, Scott didn’t mean any harm. He doesn’t really care that I stutter. But it stayed with me. I carried it around with me, particularly when I was telling a story. Would this story be better if I wasn’t stuttering?

Eventually I told a close mutual friend about it, and he encouraged me to talk to Scott about it. At the next event I saw him at, I did. He was confused because this same mutual friend teased me about EVERYTHING. “Not my stutter,” I explained. “It’s off-limits, even to him.” Of course, he felt horrible and apologized a bunch. To him, it was just a random joke because people love to tease me. I laugh off nearly every other joke about me. He didn’t expect one this one to stick because to him, my stutter wasn’t a big deal.

I knew that too. So why did it bug me so much?

Let’s connect this to something physical. Have you ever gotten a gnarly sunburn? Or perhaps you were running and fell and got a giant bruise on your leg? Or you got your wisdom teeth out?

What is true about all of those areas for awhile? They’re sore.

Your friend comes up and wraps you into a hug. They mean well. They don’t intend to hurt you. But the sunburn on your back is SENSITIVE. The hug is horribly painful.

If it weren’t for the sunburn, for the bruise, for the recent surgery, touch would not hurt. After I got my tattoo, I couldn’t sleep on that side of my body for a couple nights. It was tender.

It still hurts.

A poke on a bad bruise can feel like the person just punched you in the arm. It was only a poke. But where they poked was so tender that they may as well have slapped you across the face.

So my friend’s comment was small. It was meant as a light joke and not intended to hurt. Kinda like those people who ask you if you forgot your name. Typically, the intention isn’t malicious. Yet it hurts as much as if they had imitated the stutter back at me and told me I was an idiot.

I guess the question is: why?

Part of it is holding onto this hurt. Maybe one person was bullied as a kid. But maybe it wasn’t even as straightforward. Maybe it was just that constant focus on your techniques, on the idea that only fluent people succeed in life. The idea that you’re still stuttering because you’re not trying hard enough. That others look down on you because of your stutter.

The word for these tiny comments, often by friends and loved ones, is “microaggressions”. I learned about microaggressions as I learned about cultural awareness and everyday racism. Discrimination of speech impediments is different from discrimination based on race, so I can’t argue that it’s the same thing, but it does include microaggressions.

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. – Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014 (bold emphasis by me)

For stuttering, this could be comments, particular glances, even body language. These things hurt because they are a reminder and a result of something much deeper. The discrimination people with speech impediments face.

Isad_ribbonToday is International Stuttering Awareness Day (ISAD) and I’ve been seeing a bunch of people talk about what “Discrimination Is.” Some of the stories are heartbreaking. People who are discouraged from career paths, openly mocked, fired, not hired, dismissed, ignored… from children who are not given a chance to adults who just want to be heard. Some may think that with all of these horrible things that happen, then why be hurt over a small joke? Shouldn’t we have thicker skin?

But it comes back to the fact that all these small things are a poke on a much bigger bruise that we live with. It’s why microaggressions are so important to at least identify. They may not go anywhere, but being aware of them is an important first step for validating why these comments hurt and why it is OK to stand up for yourself.

Sure, someone may be making a joke. But what they just did was slap the back of a person with a second degree sunburn. It’s OK to say “ouch,” even if it makes the other person feel temporary guilty. It’s OK to say “My stutter is a sensitive topic, and I’d rather you not make jokes about it” even to those who don’t mean anything bad by it.

It’s not wrong for a poke to hurt you when they’re poking a bruise.

Why Stutterers Should Have Stuttering Friends: A Post on Loneliness — October 6, 2015

Why Stutterers Should Have Stuttering Friends: A Post on Loneliness

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PC: Delaine Downie, 2009

The most embarrassing part of this story is that it happened while watching Twilight in theaters. At least I wasn’t actually watching the movie as I climbed up the stairs, away from my big group of friends, to sit next to one friend that had isolated himself. He was feeling sorry for himself as he watched his ex-girlfriend hold hands with someone else.

I didn’t say anything when I sat down.

He broke the silence, his voice shaking. “Why are you sitting up here? You should be with everyone else.”

“You’re up here all alone,” I replied.

Everyone here is alone. They are each just sitting in their own chair, alone.”

I glanced at him. He was watching me, and his eyes weren’t as watery. “Ok, well then I will sit here, alone, in the chair next to you sitting here alone.”

He made some grunt/sigh noise and caved. He offered to move up to sit in the same row as everyone else, on the opposite end of his ex-girlfriend, so we got up and became part of the group again. He made fun of the entire movie and we got to laugh much more than we would have otherwise.

This moment has always stayed with me, and I thought it was because of how dramatic the situation felt. But I realized when I was the regional conference for the National Stuttering Association, it was because this was exactly how I felt every time I used to hear the words: “You are not alone.”

I would fight those words. I felt so alone. How could I suddenly not be alone? I was alone, alone, alone.

You hear that from the children at the conference: “I’m the only kid at my school who stutters.” I remember that feeling in high school: I was different. I was alone. Even my closest friends could not grasp what I faced on a daily basis. Most teenagers feel this in some way, but it was simply a fact of life I carried with me. No one else understood.

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My San Diego Chapter at the 2015 Regional Conference

So flash forward a few years of my life and how did I end up in this room full of about 100 people, feeling completely understood? When the words “You are not alone” used to make me snap back with, “You aren’t me, so what do you know?”

This was my truth that I had to face: “You are alone. Maybe you are. But you don’t have to be. You are alone until the day you realize you don’t have to be anymore.”

Like my friend with his whole “being alone in the seat next to me.” He chose to be alone. It was his choice to stay there, being alone, or realize he had a friend sitting next to him. It sounds dramatic, but is it not exactly what I did with my stutter?

I spent my life avoiding people who stuttered. I was afraid to look in the mirror and see my biggest flaw staring back at me in the eyes of all these people. On TV, even adult stutterers were still so insecure and pathetic; they were still alone and isolated. They were career-driven accountants who could never work their way up because their speech still controlled them. I did not want to find out that was true.

And I didn’t. In fact, I found it to be quite the opposite. I have met public speakers and I have had lawyers pointed out to me (the two careers I had deemed impossible because of my speech.) I have met social butterflies and nerds and comedians. Nearly every person to take the stage makes the audience laugh. I found that I was, in fact, looking in a mirror. But what I saw was kindness, empathy, encouragement, beauty, humor, silliness. I still saw my stutter, but it didn’t feel like a flaw anymore. It didn’t feel like anything. The rest overwhelmed. If our stutter caused us to be people who giggled together over how awkward interactions with fluent speakers could be, then it encouraged humor in us. If being spoken over for years connected us, it also encouraged empathy and kindness in us. If wishing we had been noticed more often connected us, it also brought out the ability and strength to encourage each other. Our stutter connected us because it turned us into a beautiful people.

I was alone. Until I realized that I was not alone. And the people who were sitting on the chairs either side of me were the exact kind of people I needed in my life. I will never be alone again. There are moments I want to run away, moments I am afraid of this new life. I am terrified of the truth that my stutter is not what is holding me back: I am*. It’s always been me. I am terrified of seeing this truth in other people. But now that I have about 50 more Facebook friends, I know I won’t be so alone anymore… at least not when it comes to my stutter.

So I can say this confidently now: I am thankful for my stutter. If for no other reason, I am thankful because it connects me to all of these people. There are other reasons too, but that one is my favorite.

I am not alone… not anymore.

* There are situations where people who do not understand disfluency will limit people who stutter. There are job interviews or networking situations or social situations in which people who stutter will be held back. This is still a fact of life. I don’t mean to dismiss those at all. I am speaking in a more general sense of my own anxiety/shame that has always held me back and my fear of what others are thinking.